Dick Winslow was a busy kid in the 1920s as an actor. He was Joe Harper in Tom Sawyer with Jackie Coogan, and he was a boy reporter on a radio program. But Winslow loved music, and in 1964 he got his chance to sing and play his accordion and the drums and the cymbals and the horn in his own one-man band. At 71, Winslow still does parties and TV commercials with his one-man band. He and his wife live in Studio City. My real name is Johnson. Winslow is really my middle name, but down south in Louisiana, where I was born, they call all the kids by two names, Bobby Joe or Billy Jack. My parents called me Dick Winslow until the day they died. I’ve been Dick Winslow ever since I started in pictures when I was 7 years old.
Harry Carey started me in pictures. He had a big ranch in Saugus and Newhall, and my mother used to rest up out there and get away from all the kids. Once he needed a little boy for a picture, and I was too large for it, so he took my younger sister and cut her hair like a boy. All the Johnson kids got into pictures. There was a saying around Hollywood, “Get one of the Johnson children because there is one the right size for everything.”
Growing up in pictures was wonderful. With seven kids in the family, my mother couldn’t watch us all. Sometimes I’d take one of my younger brothers and sisters to the studios when I was 12 or 13 years old and look after them all day long.
When you came out here to Universal City, over the Cahuenga Pass, when I was a kid, you were in open country. I did Westerns when I was young, and we did chases on horses right through where we’re living now in Studio City.
I used to drag my accordion along to the studio. I had my accordion on the set when Gary Cooper did “The Virginian,” and the director let me play my little-old, beat-up accordion during this big barbecue scene. I inherited my good ear from my mother, who could sit down at the piano and play anything, and my dad, who was a trained baritone. I never took piano lessons, but I taught myself the accordion. The accordion is the greatest basic thing in the world.
I didn’t come up with the idea of the one-man band. Walt Disney chose me to be the one-man band when they opened the picture “Mary Poppins” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in 1964. Walt knew me as an actor. I’d had my accordion on the set at Disney, and he said, “If anyone can play all those instruments at once, Dick Winslow can do it.” They had me dress like Dick Van Dyke and be the one-man band at the premiere. Then he put me to work at Disneyland. He flew me all over this country and Canada promoting Disneyland.
Playing a one-man band is like hitting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. You have to coordinate it. It takes a long time to learn. I’m playing the accordion and singing and punctuating all the music with the base drum and the cymbals between my knees. Playing the one-man band keeps me young.
I was also the first guy to play piano on an airplane. I used to leave Disneyland at 5:30 and drive like mad through downtown rush-hour traffic to the Burbank Airport. I’d get on this DC-4 and serenade these gamblers and tourists up to Las Vegas on the Hacienda Hotel champagne flight. I did 1,133 round trip flights between Burbank and Las Vegas in 4 1/2 years.
My job was to calm them down when we took off. A lot of the people had never flown. When we’re taxiing to take off, I’m strapped to this piano bench in this DC-4 looking back at the people. Every seat had a built-in speaker so they could hear me. I’d turn to the cockpit and say, “Captain, now put that drink down. We’re going to take off now. Grab that round wheel in front of you,” and we’d start to taxi. I’d say, “Now don’t worry folks, I’m the one who takes the plane off.” I’d say to the pilot, “When I count to three, you pull back the stick and we’ll take off.” I’d done it so many times, I knew when the plane would take off, so I’d count, “One, two, three,” and the damned thing would start to go up.